Breaking Barriers: The Political Empowerment of Bolivia’s Indigenous Women

The political inclusion of one of Latin America’s most marginalized groups reflects an unprecedented change, but many challenges remain.

June 20, 2024

A Quechua woman stands in front of a mural celebrating coca grower resistance in the Chapare. (Thomas Grisaffi)

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Remigia Ferrel Vallejos, a Bolivian union executive from Chimoré, in the coca-grower Chapare region, isn’t nostalgic for the old days. “Before there was a lot of fatalism. Many times, in meetings I was told, ‘women don’t count, the man has to come,” she explains. “That’s how it was; we didn’t even have the right to speak, or keep our own names, or hold title to land. Now it’s almost 50-50, we have rights, and we participate. We have authorities at every level of government who are women.”

Ferrel is describing the remarkable transformation over a decade of Bolivia’s rural Indigenous women from “helpers” of male-dominated peasant unions to ministers in the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) government of Evo Morales from 2006 to 2019. Yet this achievement stands in stark contrast to the current disintegration of the MAS and its political project due to a fractious competition between the current president, Luis “Lucho” Arce, and former President Morales.  

The infighting has also split the national Indigenous women’s organization, the National Confederation of Campesino Women of Bolivia Bartolina Sisa, commonly known as “Las Bartolinas,” that spearheaded the changes in Indigenous women’s status during the Morales era. The Bartolinas are estimated to have some 1.5 million members, making it the country’s most important women’s organization as well as the largest Indigenous women’s organization in the Americas.

Despite the rifts today, the surge in political inclusion of one of Latin America’s most politically marginalized groups achieved by the Bartolinas reflects a metamorphosis that has never occurred anywhere else before or since. Bolivia’s gains in gender parity are particularly significant during the current “super election year”—when more of the world’s population will vote than any other time in human history—yet most candidates worldwide remain men.

Seeds of Change

The roots of Bolivia’s success are found in Ferrel’s home region of the Chapare, where Indigenous coca-growing women, known as “cocaleras,” fought against the 1990s U.S.-financed war on drugs. Constant police and military repression in the Chapare during that period accelerated the creation of a separate women’s movement. “I always say women are stronger thanks to coca, thanks to the government of the USA,” jokes former union leader Apolonia Sánchez, who from 2016 to 2019 headed the Cochabamba department’s Decolonization unit.  “We were obliged to get organized, even if the men did not want us to.”

Women march in support of the Bartolina Sisa organization in Cochabamba. (Thomas Grisaffi)

Given coca’s importance to household finances in the Chapare, growers mobilized to defend their right to cultivate the leaf, using the vocabulary of Indigenous rights and national sovereignty. Women also deployed traditional gender roles as the “weaker sex” to advance their movement’s goals in the streets: “Women went first because the men were attacked like animals, and we weren’t. For that reason, women have always been at the head of the march,” recalls union leader Rosena Rodríguez from the town of Shinahota.

In March 1995, a congress of national peasant organizations convened to form a political instrument to represent campesino interests—which eventually became the MAS party. Women’s involvement proved a game changer in ensuring Morales’s rise to national leadership; he and other male coca grower leaders’ efforts to position themselves as the vanguard of the country’s peasant movement depended on cocalera backing. “Our brother Evo said, ‘together with the women, we will defend ourselves,’” recalls Sánchez.

Another critical turning point came with the 400 km (250 mile) Women’s March to La Paz in December 1995, demanding an end to coca eradication and respect for human rights. For the first time in Bolivia’s history, Indigenous women acted as representatives of social movements and negotiated directly with the government without male intermediaries.

By the early 2000s, cocaleras from the Chapare had become the country’s most dedicated advocates for Indigenous women. “We remain the best organized,” says María Eugenia Ledezma, the leader of the Chapare women’s organizations. “Our struggle is not just for our own region, it’s for the whole country.”

For people with little formal education, union participation was like going to school, preparing them for leadership positions. Cocalera and former Bartolinas executive Leonilda Zurita, who served as a national senator from 2006 to 2009, told sociologist Sandra Ramos Salazar: “To go to union meetings was our high school, the meetings of the Six Federations [Chapare coca growers unions] our university, and national level meetings our specialization.” This training has meant that the cocaleras have led the Bartolinas more often than women from anywhere else in the country. 

That cocalera leadership and influence proved instrumental in the formidable coalition of social movements that thrust Morales to the presidency in late 2005. The new government went on to guarantee equal pay for equal work; significantly increase women’s access to land, education, and health care; and announced plans to curb endemic violence against women, among the highest in Latin America. Bolivia’s overall poverty rate plummeted, which impacted the poorest, least educated, and most marginalized group—working-class Indigenous women—more than any other.Nonetheless, like many laws in a country that has always lacked implementation capacity, equal pay enforcement was (and is) almost non-existent. And despite legal protections and government campaigns, violence against women persists as one of Bolivia’s most serious problems. Girls and women endure more partner violence than anywhere else in Latin America and the Caribbean, with most femicides—57 percent—impacting largely Indigenous women from the countryside, where only 30 percent of the population currently lives.

Former President Evo Morales arrives to inaugurate a new school in the Chapare in 2014. (Thomas Grisaffi)

Indigenous Women and Feminisms Find Common Cause

As Indigenous women’s organizing gathered steam, this constituency also benefited from the advances made by urban middle-class feminists, particularly their pioneering work advancing electoral representation during the late 1990s. Indigenous women nevertheless kept a critical distance during this period. Tensions between the Bartolinas and feminists have historically run deep, stemming from hundreds of years of Indigenous women’s servitude to lighter-skinned women, who often viewed them as clients of their nongovernmental projects rather than as political partners. The Bartolinas frequently identified feminism as a white, middle-class consequence of capitalism, even when they were in the same political party.  

Prior to 2019, when Morales was ousted and replaced with a far-right government, Bolivian feminism—with the exception of feminist anarchist groups like Mujeres Creando and the Asamblea Feminista Comunitaria—rarely considered Indigenous women, either theoretically or ideologically. This blind spot echoed historical patterns—like the exclusion of Indigenous women from the first suffrage struggles in 1929, which advocated literacy as a criterion for the vote—that have hampered collaboration between Indigenous women and middle-class women for generations.

An Aymara woman attends a Ni Una Menos march in La Paz in 2017. (Linda Farthing)

Indigenous women argued that feminism incited disagreements with Indigenous men and undervalued Indigenous culture. Because of these differences, racial equality has consistently trumped gender as Bolivian Indigenous women’s priority, although that has steadily shifted with time. In 2023, the Bartolina leadership declared a “frontal fight against machismo which is the source of violence and violation of our rights.”

This changed dynamic in Bolivia’s women’s movements is also reflected in the explosive growth of radical feminism in the aftermath of the 2019 crisis, mirroring a process throughout the Americas, particularly among young urban women, including those of Indigenous origin. Fueled in part by widespread revelations of sexual abuse in Bolivia condoned by the Catholic Church, marches for International Women’s Day and the hemispheric Ni Una Menos anti-violence campaign have proliferated and grown, as have feminist collectives and organizations. Almost all of this new mobilization incorporates a broader population in terms of race and class than its predecessors.

The Struggle Goes On

In 2009, the Bartolinas successfully coordinated with middle-class feminists to incorporate gender parity into a new constitution, which emerged as one of the most advanced in women’s rights in the world. The Bartolinas were largely convinced by cocalera leader Leonilda Zurita, who argued that gender parity was consistent with Indigenous values. “The political parties agreed to gender parity without realizing what it actually meant,” said Monica Novillo, former director of the Women’s Coalition, a broad-based alliance of feminist non-governmental organizations.

“The Constitution changed a great deal, raising consciousness of women’s rights among many people for the first time,” maintains Freddy Condo, a longtime adviser to the Bartolinas. Today, Bolivia stands out as one of the few countries where women make up approximately 50 percent of lawmakers across all levels of government. As Bolivian women only won the vote in 1953, this achievement is extraordinary.

Union leader is interviewed by reporters in the Chapare. (Thomas Grisaffi)

Achieving gender equality has not been easy: after parity was mandated, some men presented themselves as women and were crudely referred to as “transvestite candidates” in the media. And male-dominated parties often selected women candidates they were sure they could control, according to Jessy López, director of the Association of Councilwoman of Bolivia, or ACOBOL. Violence against the new female politicians grew as well. Over 80 percent of women municipal councilors reported to ACOBOL at least one case of violence or political intimidation while in office, most often carried out by other authorities, López told us in a 2015 interview.

“Councilwoman have had their house set on fire, their husbands fired from their jobs, their children assaulted, and been physically attacked, all so that they’ll resign early,” she reported. In two cases, women serving as municipal council members have been murdered.

In 2012, Evo Morales’ government passed Law 348, one of the region’s most progressive anti-violence laws, which was accompanied by a public campaign denouncing violence against women. “This is our great internal contradiction,” explains Monica Novillo, “We have extremely high levels of violence at the same time that we have achieved legislative equality.

Implementation of the law has been patchy at best. While domestic violence reporting rose by 40 percent, Law 348 faces the same problems with its application as other laws: inadequate resources. Women are also re-victimized by the judicial system, face chronic corruption and impunity, as well as a culture that obstructs women’s’ ability to denounce their aggressors.

One of the few women mayors in rural Bolivia, the Chapare’s Segundina Orellana, told us: “There remains an attitude that women are inferior, and this begins in childhood. Women suffer because we have family responsibilities, and men just don’t understand. We need more education and training to lead.”

One struggle Bolivian women face is the doble jornada—the double working day. “Women’s responsibility is still the family: to raise children, cook, and once that is done, then we can leave home and work as leaders,” says Honorata Díaz, a former Chapare municipal councilwoman. Ruth Sejas Charca, another former councilmember, agrees: “Women always have more work and responsibilities.”

While the mobilization of the cocaleras pushed the MAS government toward greater emphasis on rural Indigenous women, many stumbling blocks remain. “As a woman, I have been a union leader and I have known women who have been the top leader of their union, which is usually a man’s job,” says departmental assemblywoman Maria Javier Yucra. “There have been advances, right? But we still have so much more to do.”

Linda Farthing has 30 years of experience in Latin America as a journalist, independent scholar, study abroad director, and film field producer. She has written four books on Bolivia and reported for The Guardian, Al Jazeera, the Nation and NACLA.

Thomas Grisaffi teaches Human Geography at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland. He is the author of Coca yes, Cocaine no: how Bolivia's coca growers reshaped democracy (Duke University Press, 2019). 

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